I broke down and hired on with a tour company for a temple bus tour and river cruise back to Bangkok on the Chao Phraya river. A van picked me up and 6:45 am at the hotel and, after stops to pick up a few more tourists, the van dropped us off onto a large bus for the trip to the temples. It is very hot, dusty and humid, and we had to wait an hour for a feeder van to deliver another group of tourists to the bus.
First up is the Bang Pa-In, which was a palace built over mostly between 1872 and 1889. The overall design esthetic is elusive. Some of the buildings look to be colonial and are quite nice, some are gaudy temple-kitsch, and there are overtly Chinese buildings. There is poorly made Roman statuary and Babar the Elephant topiaries. A modern Catholic Church sits on the grounds, but our guide said it was for Buddhist services. There are sentry boxes with young armed soldiers in camouflage fatigues. Throughout are speakers posted on colonial lampposts blaring children’s music of a Disneyesque sort. Gangs of leering gardeners roar through the grounds in unsafe trucks disrupting foot traffic.
Bang Pa-In also has an obscure dress code. Women in shorts were required to wrap their lower halves in a sarong to enter some buildings, although men could be our usual slob selves wherever we went. We had to take off shoes to visit the Chinese building, I don’t know why. Buddhism here is tough to figure out, at least on a bus tour. All week people have been burning joss sticks and leaving soda pop offerings to the gold elephant-headed, multi-armed god stationed just outside one of the big noisy malls here in Bangkok, where you can also buy a Lamborghini. It’s hard to know what is sacred and what profane in Bangkok.
From there we visited two more sites, both ruins. The buildings had been build of flat red brick, but construction technique seems to have been developmental; its no surprise that they are no longer standing. The sites are dusty and hot and clogged with tourists like me. Of course frantic salespeople are everywhere. One guy takes individual pictures of everyone as they step off the bus. When you get back to the bus they have printed your picture on gaudy little plastic plates which they offer to sell. A guy on our bus was trying to wheedle the price down for one of these god-awful souvenirs and, when he failed, walked off in a huff. I needled him by saying now some stranger would be eating off his face when, for only a few more baht, his own family could enjoy eating off his face for years to come. They had the same scam at the next place and I did a “BACON’D” in honor of MP and would have bought it but they didn’t print it out.
Everywhere are lurid pictures of the American-born King, who resembles a Martin Short character. There are also hagiographic images of his wife and sons. The guide pointed out their numerous private residences, boat launches, shrines to a son because he studied in Switzerland, and other excesses of the royal family. Thailand has managed to block access to the Wikipedia entry for His Excellency from within Thailand on several occasions, so I assume he is not universally beloved. Public criticism of him can yield a 3 to 15 year prison sentence. He is also in ill health – on the river tour we went by the hospital where he is being treated and I noticed 3 medium sized gunboats and 4 smaller military watercraft idling in the river, forming a semicircle between Siriraj Hospital and the main river channel.
Oh, I learned that Thailand and Cambodia are currently at war, but that this has not interrupted commerce between the two countries. Sy and Elaine, incurious tourists from New York, flew from Cambodia to Bangkok just the other day with no trouble at all. I leave tomorrow and am glad of it. The Thai people have been kind but I can’t think of a single reason to ever return to Bangkok.